It’s an argument as old as cinema itself… well, pretty much – can a movie ever be as good as or better than the book it’s based on?
From early cinema’s adaptations (official and otherwise), of Dracula and Frankenstein, through the Bond franchise adding Fleming’s titles to their own stories, right up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe adjusting the themes of comics to suit their own success, viewers have been complaining “the films are never as good as the book” for the best part of a century now.
But are they always right? We here at Late Reviewer reckon there are some pretty clear examples where the adaptation has improved on the source material… and here are three of them.
The Godfather (1972)
Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia masterpiece has become such an integral part of cinema history – with behind-the-scenes stories entertaining enough to warrant an upcoming film about its production – that it’s pretty much critic-proof.
However, readers of Mario Puzo’s original novel might have been disappointed to miss the sub-plots that were lost from the final product… well, maybe not one of them.
See, one of the topics Puzo writes about at great length* is the size of Sonny Corleone’s manhood. See, he’s ‘blessed’ in the trouser department, and the book dedicates a surprising number of chapters to his mistress Lucy Mancini who is one of the only women in 1940s New York able to… accommodate him.
After Sonny is murdered, she leaves New York for Las Vegas and takes up with a doctor who arranges for her to have plastic surgery to allow her to enjoy the company of average-sized men. Reader, she marries him.
I swear I am not making this up.
The only bit of this whole thing that made it into the film was Sonny’s wife making some suggestive hand gestures to her girlfriends at the wedding at the beginning of the movie while James Caan is in the bathroom with Lucy.
*Pun absolutely intended.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Bit of an obvious one, this, but definitely a case of the film not just overshadowing the book, but improving on it.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption is a great novella, and if you’ve never read Stephen King’s Different Seasons, I’d highly recommend it.
That being said, it covers a LOT of ground, with a string of corrupt wardens and prison offices coming and going over the many years of Andy Dufresne’s prison sentence – and that’s where the film adaptation works better.
By reducing the number of ‘villains’ and focusing on Bob Gunton’s warden Norton and Clancy Brown’s head guard Hadley, the viewer (and Andy), is given a pair of clear antagonists to boo and hiss and that makes Dufresne’s escape all the more triumphant.
The Lord Of The Rings (2000-2003)
There are Tolkien purists who might disagree with this, but the Peter Jackson trilogy really managed to work wonders with the epic (in every sense of the word), source material.
Over nine hours, Jackson and co-writers Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh still told a huge story, complete with backstory, tonnes of exposition, a beginning, middle and end… alright, maybe there were a few too many endings.
But compared to the novels – which have a tendency to introduce a character by revealing six generations of their lineage before we get to their name or description – the LOTR films are economic and svelte.
Alright, maybe you could argue the Scouring of the Shire might’ve made a nice way to cap off the Hobbits’ homecoming – but it’d be about the seventh ending in an already very long film.
Also, Tom Bombadil can fuck right off.
So, what have we missed?
Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list, and by its very nature, a two or three-hour film will have to streamline the 100,000 or so words that goes into a novel so you’re going to lose some elements.
This is just a Quick Read with a few big films which I think improve on the books – but I’d love to hear your suggestions.
Agree? Disagree? Think there’s an obvious one I’ve missed? Let me know on Twitter, Facebook or here on the site, there’s a fair chance this isn’t the last time we visit this topic!
UPDATE: There was an incredible response to this online, with loads of Late Reviewer readers getting in touch with their favourites – you can read the full list here.